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Occupy Tampa struggles to maintain momentum and focus

TAMPA

It's a Tuesday night in April in Voice of Freedom Park, down the street from a barbecue place where a man with gold teeth is telling stories and a bar where cans of malt liquor go for $1.

Two men are arguing.

"We're waiting for an eviction notice," says Thomas Parisi, his voice raspy from screaming. "It wasn't dealt with as a camp."

Parisi stands accused of fighting and drinking, violating Occupy Tampa's "Safer Spaces Agreement." The agreement bars violence, drugs and alcohol. (It also implores members to not act "racist, ageist, sexist, hetero-sexist, cis-sexist, able-bodiest, classist, sizist, etc.")

Joel Klinepeter, a short man with a thick red beard, told Parisi he'd been evicted. Parisi, a lanky, tan man who came from Occupy Miami, said an eviction needs to be approved at the daily "general assembly."

"This isn't a general assembly issue," says Klinepeter, 29. Violations were witnessed, he says. Eviction is automatic.

Some Occupy members disagree. Parisi glares at Klinepeter.

"You are such a pleasant individual," Klinepeter says.

"You're such a f------ b----," Parisi replies.

• • •

They gathered by the river in October, inspired by Occupy Wall Street. They stood in the rain with strangers, united by the feeling that something needed to change, divided over what that was and how to make it happen.

Eight months later, the Occupy movement remains rooted here, but still lacks clarity of purpose. Spend a few nights with the members of Occupy Tampa, and you'll hear the urgency and frustration in their voices. You'll see the good they can achieve. And you'll see the fissures along which their movement could crumble.

• • •

A week after the argument, Parisi's gone, but the conversation continues. Should one person, or a few people, have the power to evict?

Occupy Tampa uses the general assembly format adopted by Occupy Wall Street. Simple majority does not mean approval. A few dissenters can torpedo a decision.

While one person talks, everyone else reacts with hand gestures. Approval is expressed through "uptwinkles" — both hands raised, fingers wiggling. Disapproval is expressed with "downtwinkles." Consensus is tricky.

During the discussion, Klinepeter complains that the eviction process has been tedious. He would support a system that allows evictions to bypass the general assembly.

Downtwinkles.

"I just think that assigning authority roles in a nonhierarchical structure could lead to unforeseen problems," says Steve Gentile, 29, a gardener who lives in Tampa. "It's not that I don't trust you guys, but in a certain sense, I don't trust you guys."

• • •

Ask 10 Occupy Tampa members what they're protesting, and you'll get 10 different answers. Break up big banks. End corporate influence on government. Inspire revolution.

Occupy Tampa's members have spread those messages through flash-mob-style protests. They shouted Think before you buy! at Walmart shoppers in November. They urged Publix shoppers not to buy genetically modified foods in February. They protested Chinese factory conditions at an Apple store, and told Outback Steakhouse diners about the restaurant's push to lower waiter wages.

They've impressed sociologists by affecting political discourse in only a few months. But the history of social movements in America suggests Occupy needs focus to ensure its relevance.

Successful social movements set concrete goals. And recruit. Most erect a leadership. Occupy's signature characteristic — its autonomous, leaderless structure — may ultimately be its downfall.

A movement without direction isn't a movement. It's just a crowd.

Some members bristle when asked about setting goals.

"We're trying to improve society for everyone. Not just rich people," said Jeff Haynes, 51, a retired engineer from South Tampa. He wants to live in a society that is more fair, more honest. How do you make that happen?

"I don't know," he says. "I just know that what we're doing now isn't working."

• • •

Robbie Pelchat is giving a tour of Occupy Tampa's community garden. A few weeks before, Pelchat and others cleaned a nearby alleyway. They replaced the broken bottles and syringes with tires. They filled the tires with soil and seeds. Squash. Potatoes. Watermelon. Onions. Peppers.

They want to show their neighbors they don't need corporate groceries for food. When the plants produce, Occupy Tampa will invite people to take what they want for free.

At one end of the alley, they put a few tables and chairs. They hope to add board games.

"We want to make this a place where kids can come and play," says Pelchat, 21.

Behind him, two men and a woman sit at a table, a tall can of Natural Ice between them. One of the men tries to stand, then topples. Blood trickles from his mouth.

Pelchat buzzes around them, picking up cigarette butts. The woman says the man had too much to drink. The woman asks Pelchat what he's doing. He says he's with Occupy Tampa.

"Right on," she says. "You've got to fight for your right to party."

Pelchat smiles. In a tire behind him the squash, green and yellow, have started to sprout.

Will Hobson can be reached at whobson@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4167. Follow him on Twitter at @TheWillHobson.

Occupy Tampa struggles to maintain momentum and focus 06/08/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 8, 2012 4:30pm]

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